Some thoughts on the psychology of RPG groups.

During one of the seminars I gave at GenCon this year, one of the attendees mentioned the response that the players in her group have to the sound of shaking dice. Namely that all side conversations would stop and everyone immediately queued in on what was about to happen, whether they knew what was going on or not. This led me into a larger discussion on small group interactions and psychology in a tabletop RPG group. There have been some requests that I discuss the topic again, from friends online who were not able to attended, so here is my attempt. 

A couple of disclaimers – I am not a psychologist. What follows is my own interpretation of behavior and group interaction based solely on my own experiences in gaming, the military, and professional work environments. I think there is some truth in here, but you may disagree. Post some comments if you do, I’d love to hear your own ideas.

When I started to think about how to explain the seminar conversation, I ended up focusing on a couple of words: Position and Posture. Each of these three items has a profound effect on the way attention focuses, and effectively guides or controls the dynamic of a small group. When we are talking about a traditional RPG, in which there is a GM and players, and there are (sometimes varying) degrees of narrative authority, there still tends to be a view of the GM as a de facto game leader, and via some transitive property, also the group leader. The behavior of the person who is perceived as being in charge is a very powerful thing. Humans respond naturally to leadership. It is a strong part of being a social creature. It is from that angle that I will explore these topics. 

Position – There is already a perceived leadership role in the group appointed to the GM. That person’s position in the group further informs that position. When the GM is seated at the head of a table, there is an unspoken formality brought into the relationship. The leadership position is physically realized at the table. The players are seated in subservient positions around. Many games will include a screen further promoting not only the authority of the leader, but also his insulation from the group. He is separate from the player. Superior, authoritative, the keeper of knowledge, and controller or fate; whether or not people ever realize the ramifications of this, it is taking place. The GM speaks, and all eyes and heads turn to face the leader.  Players ask for permission for their own actions, in the form of rolling a skill, or making an attack. While the actual behavior is asking for interpretation of result, the social dynamic is that of parent/child, asking for permission for the action.  The player rolls, begging for the GMs permission to know something, and the GM (based on whatever game or group criteria have been established) then grants or denies permission of that action.

Knowing this underlying authority structure, it can then be subverted and repurposed for dramatic need and betterment of the game. Changes in things like using a round table, a game where narrative control lies in the players, playing without a GM screen… all of these reduce the separation between player and GM in the small group space. This will have measurable effects on the dynamic at the table. Players will be more relaxed in their interactions in the game, and with the GM, and each other.  If a GM understands how each of these elements contributes to the interpersonal relationships at the table during play, she can better take advantage of them as a tool, rather than just an aftereffect of the game’s make up.

Posture - Combined with position at the table, posture provides the other side of the physical space in which the GM operates. Sitting, standing, leaning, slumping…all of these contribute to the energy that a GM projects at the table. Posture provides a signal of intent. It is usually subconscious in how a person interprets it. Have you ever seen a person, and just by the way they “looked” you felt that they were a soldier?  Ever look at someone and just get the feeling that they “know how to handle themselves”? Been nervous near someone and not really understood why? Most of this comes down to posture and how that person was carrying himself. 

Posture contributes to someone else’s idea of another’s self -confidence, capability, whether or not they are a threat, or maybe need help. These are things that our ape brains have evolved over the ages to help us survive. And like any other tool, they can be used to your advantage if they are understood. Using your own body space and posture as a way of providing a subtext to a game environment is one of the greatest assets that an in person tabletop RPG can have. An aggressive posture during an RP scene will have a tangible effect on how the players interact with that NPC. The same thing goes for a submissive posture.

It may sound silly at first, but think of how you act around dogs that you don’t know? The dog is also a social creature, extremely focused in on interaction and station within the pack. However, the primary thing they lack is vocal speech. They do the same things that we do in jockeying for and learning about the hierarchy within a group, but they do it all without words. It is all about body language. Posture. Position. Presence. Imagine that while you are GMing a game, there are two conversations going on simultaneously. The verbal one you are completely aware of and the non-verbal one which you may or may not be aware of. Becoming aware of the non-verbal conversation allows you to add something extra and special to your games. It’s something that most people may never consciously pick up on, but will almost always respond to.

With all of this in mind, I would also add that incorporating these behaviors into the actions of the NPCs in the game can also add a new dimension to the game. When you are narrating a scene, add in commentary about that NPCs posture and position. Talk about what kind of presence they project in the scene. It adds a lot of flavor to the behavior that you then narrate, and role play. 

Some closing thoughts – I am also not an author or blogger of any measurable talent. Hopefully I did not ramble on too much during the course of the discussion. I look forward to hearing your own thoughts on how people interact at a gaming table. There really is a lot of area to explore these interactions, how verbal and non-verbal behaviors play off of one another. Vocal tone, volume, etc. can all add to the effectiveness of the non-verbal side of things. Please share your own thoughts and experiences, and keep the conversation going.
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